A decade of service – and options for the future

A photo essay by Ben Isitt

Ten years ago this month – in December 2011 – I was sworn into office as a city councillor and regional director in Lekwungen territory (“Victoria”, “BC”).

Ben and his daughter at his swearing in ceremony in Victoria City Hall
Being sworn into office, with my daughter

I was fortunate to be re-elected twice, topping the polls in 2014 and 2018 with an inspiring team of volunteers and supporters, on the pledge to “stand up for people and the planet”. I am very grateful to all those who’ve supported me – fellow elected officials, volunteers and voters.   

Election night, 2014
Election night, 2014, topping the polls for city council with nearly 15,000 votes

During my decade of service as a city councillor and regional director, I have aimed to contribute in a modest way toward actions for a more inclusive and sustainable city and region.

This includes conceiving the Regional Housing First Program and championing it with colleagues Jeremy Loveday, Lisa Helps, Dave Howe and grassroots anti-poverty advocates, generating $120-million of investment in non-market housing. Construction is now completed or underway on 1,000 new units of social housing; 400 of these units are priced at the provincial income-assistance “shelter rate”, accessible to people experiencing homelessness.

Building more inclusive communities with the Regional Housing First Program
Building more inclusive communities with the Regional Housing First Program, with 1,000 new units of social housing

Working with allies across the region, I have also advocated for protection of natural areas and Indigenous cultural heritage sites – in the Sooke Hills, Gulf Islands and Juan de Fuca Electoral Area. With WSANEC and Hul’qumi’num Indigenous partners, we secured the protection of Grace Islet, a Coast Salish burial ground off Salt Spring Island.

Advocating for the protection of Grace Islet
Standing with Indigenous communities to protect the Coast Salish burial ground at Grace Islet in 2014

With City Council colleagues and climate-justice groups, we’ve taken action for fare-free public transit, beginning with Victoria residents ages 18 and under. This progressive, climate-friendly policy has now been embraced by the provincial government, extending to all British Columbians ages 12 and under. The next step is to eliminate financial barriers to public transit ridership for low-income people, senior citizens and, ultimately, all residents – funding transit through the tax system the way we fund bridges, roads and highways.

Advocacy for fare-free public transit
Victoria has implemented fare-free public transit for people ages 18 and younger – the first step toward fare-free public transit for everyone

There are other examples of City of Victoria policies that I championed being embraced by other levels of government, including phasing out single-use plastic bags as one step toward cleaning up the natural environment.

Activists with Surfrider Vancouver Island rally in front of Victoria City Hall, advocating for a ban on single-use checkout bags
Working with volunteers from the grassroots organization Surfrider Vancouver Island to make Victoria the first BC municipality to ban single-use checkout bags

During my first term in office, I proposed that the City pursue a walkway and bikeway along the Dallas Road waterfront, in conjunction with the regional sewage-treatment project. City of Victoria residents paid (through the CRD) 1/9th of the total project costs, leveraging regional, provincial and federal contributions for this high-quality public realm.

Dallas Road waterfront greenway
In 2012, I proposed that the city install a new greenway for pedestrians and cyclists along the Dallas Road waterfront, in conjunction with the regional sewage-treatment project. The greenway was completed in 2020, with City of Victoria taxpayers covering 1/9th of total project costs

Working with former Councillor Shellie Gudgeon and safety advocates, I helped secure a reduction in motor-vehicle speed limits at George Jay Elementary School to 30 km/h, as well as new signalized crosswalks and speed reductions on other arterial roads in Victoria neighbourhoods. Safer speed limits and improved crossings reduce the risk of pedestrian fatalities, an example now being followed with pilot programs endorsed by dozens of municipalities and the provincial government.

Safer speed limits
Safer speed limits reduce the risk of pedestrian fatalities and improve neighbourhood liveability for children, seniors and other residents

I have also helped achieve greater financial sustainability for neighbourhood associations. This includes doubling base funding to community centres and seniors’ centres, introducing honouraria for facilitation of land use meetings, and advocating for new community centres for North Park, Downtown, Oaklands and the Jubilees as well as upgrades to community centres in other neighbourhoods.

Supporting strong neighbourhoods at this community garden clean-up
Supporting healthy, connected, vibrant neighbourhoods with greater financial capacity from neighbourhood associations, community centres and seniors’ centres

In 2020, with food security advocates and City of Victoria staff, I helped initiate the Get Growing, Victoria! Program, activating municipal greenhouses in Beacon Hill Park to grow vegetable seedlings for distribution to residents, schools, First Nations and other partners. We had earlier introduced the city’s Boulevard Gardening Guidelines and Community Garden Volunteer Coordination Grant program, expanding neighbourhood connections, place-making and knowledge of food systems.

Ben and a resident at the Spring Ridge Common community garden
80,000 vegetable seedlings were grown in City of Victoria greenhouses and distributed to residents early during the Covid-19 pandemic, with Get Growing, Victoria! evolving into an ongoing municipal program

During the current term, I initiated the City of Victoria’s Seniors’ Task Force, enlisting the wisdom and experience of two-dozen senior citizens to craft the City of Victoria Seniors’ Action Plan, which is now being implemented. The plan identifies specific municipal actions to build an age-friendly community, guided by the World Health Organization’s guidelines for Age-Friendly Cities, focusing on: public spaces, buildings, transportation, social participation, information and procedures, and community and health supports.

Speaking on a panel with elder Bill Jones
Supporting seniors and an age-friendly community through the Seniors’ Task Force and Seniors’ Action Plan

I have also championed democratic public participation during my decade in public office. This has included advocating for a number of process improvements at City Hall and the CRD, including restrictions on in-camera (closed) meetings, expanding opportunities for public input (such as regular “town hall” meetings and new advisory committees), and greater transparency in budgeting, expenditures and financial reporting.

Opening up City Hall to the public, with regular “town hall” meetings, new advisory committees, increased opportunities for public input, and greater transparency of budgeting, expenditures and financial reporting

Beyond the City Council and regional board tables, I worked with social-justice allies and hospitality industry professionals to create a new not-for-profit community meal program at the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic – the Red Cedar Café – providing more than 150,000 meals to people in need since April 2020. In addition to the “pay-what-you-can” meals-on-wheels program, the café has provided direct humanitarian services to unhoused people. Acting in a volunteer capacity, I founded and stewarded this organization during its formative phase, forging partnerships with dozens of organizations, from local farmers, food retailers and community centres to agencies including the Department of National Defence and BC Housing.

Ben and a volunteer move cases of food in support of the Red Cedar Cafe's community meal program
At the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in April 2020, I founded a new community meal program – the Red Cedar Café – to provide healthy meals on a “pay-what-you-can” basis to community members in need

These actions would not have been possible without the passion, commitment and hard work of literally thousands of community members in hundreds of organizations.

Marching down Government Street during the women's march
Joining the Women’s March to help advocate for equality, an end to violence, and removal of structural barriers to full participation in community life

I have been humbled by the common-sense expertise of the 92,000 people who call Victoria home and the 420,000 residents of the capital region, and the particular expertise of Lekwungen, WSANEC, Sc’ianew, T’Sou-ke and Pacheedaht community members who have stewarded these lands and waters for millennia.

We are fortunate to live in a place where residents have a strong connection to the natural environment and a deep commitment to the values of decolonization, social justice, ecological responsibility and grassroots democratic participation.

Satellite image of southern Vancouver Island and Salish Sea
Working together to look after our corner of this small planet

As we look ahead to 2022, I am committed to continue working with you to advance these values – standing up for people and the planet – building a community and region where no one is left behind, and where we look after the natural environment that sustains us all.

Ben and his family enjoying the outdoors. Photo credit: Tony Sprackett
Enjoying the outdoors. Photo credit: Tony Sprackett

It has been an honour serving as your elected official over the past decade. I welcome any feedback you may have by email (contact@benisitt.ca) or phone (250-882-9302). In the New Year, I will be sharing a questionnaire to learn more about your priorities.

Best wishes for a happy and festive holiday season and a safe and healthy 2022.

In community,

Ben

PS – If you would like to receive updates, please take a moment to sign up for my Community Newsletter.